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Jays Trying to Fly Higher Than the Sun(s)…

I’m going to make a strange comparison.  This weekend, while watching the Jays take two of three from the Twins, I could not help but marvel over how much I like their team this year.  They’re young, which I always like in a baseball team.  They have solid arms in the rotation – in the opening three games, their starters went 18.1 innings, with 17 Ks and only 5 earned runs – and play good enough defense (well, except at third…). And they can hit the ball… far.

Jose Bautista has looked good thus far, as has Arencibia behind the plate and Snider in left.  If you think that Adam Lind and Aaron Hill can rebound to something near their 2009 numbers, then there is little reason to think that the team cannot be solid.  Contenders though?  No, no I don’t think so. They are just missing something.  As I watched on Sunday, what I was struck by, isn’t their lack of talent, but rather their lack of blue chip talent.  That upper level talent that propels a team from good to great.  It’s the sort of talent that Mike Lombardi ranks in his NFL coverage. Guys who are in the upper echelon at their position. The Jays have all the pieces to be good, but they lack those blue-chippers to make them great.

This reminded me of the Suns.  As their season imploded after that triple overtime loss to the Lakers a couple Tuesdays ago, I was struck by the same thing: the Suns are a really good team. In Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic (until that idiotic trade that cost the Suns a first round pick this year), Mikael Pietrus, and Robin Lopez (since Gortat always played starters minutes anyhow), the Suns have one of the leagues best benches.  In Grant Hill and Steve Nash, they have two veteran warriors, whose games so perfectly translate to wins, and in Marcin Gortat they have that rarest or rare NBA entities: a center.

What the Suns don’t have, is any blue chip talent.  Don’t get me wrong, I think Nash is amazing, but there are two things to consider with him: first, he is 37 years old, which in athlete years makes him ready to start collecting his pension and in NBA point guard years makes him ready to be dug up, dusted off and immortalized in an exhibit somewhere.  This isn’t a knock on Nash, rather a commentary on how remarkable it is what he’s accomplished this year.  No other point guard has been as good this late in their career, not even John Stockton, but that said, Nash IS 37 years old and thus asking him to be your team’s best player is asking your team to be .500.

Second, is that Nash should never be a team’s primary offensive option anyhow.  He’s not that style of point guard.  His game works better if he’s feeding a primary scorer, finding other options, and then hitting open jumpers when the ball comes back to him.  Obviously that’s what made him and Amare so successful.  And there’s the piece that is missing: Amare Stoudemire.  Last year when the Suns made their surprising run to the Western Conference Finals, they had Amare as their leading scorer, while Nash was a distant second and Jason Richardson a close third.  Thus, no matter how good the Suns are from players 3-12 on their roster, they lack that blue chip punch at the top.

I’m not even saying it needs to be Amare and Richardson, imagine how different this season would be if you swapped out the 17.3 million the Suns are paying Vince Carter for the 17.2 the Mavericks are paying Dirk Nowitzki?  What then if you replaced the money they are spending on Josh Childress (6.5m) and Hakim Warrick (4 m) with the money San Antonio’s paying Manu Ginobili? *  Those are two no doubt about it blue-chippers who would fit in with the club and their style of play.  Sure, suddenly the Suns would be starting four white guys, which is frightening, but adding those two pushes Frye to the bench where he belongs and removes three deadweights (Vince, Warrick, and  Childress) from the roster. The Suns would have a rotation of:

C – M. Gortat
PF – D. Nowitzki
SF – G. Hill
SG – M. Ginobili
PG – S. Nash


Bench: G. Dragic, J. Dudley, M. Pietrus, C. Frye, and R. Lopez.

That’s what blue chip talent does for you, it allows your good players to show their stuff in the roles they were meant to play.

*( Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting these as trades, obviously Dallas and San Antonio wouldn’t make these deals even if they were drugged… I’m suggesting them as an example of squandered value and how better resources at the same price would make the Suns dramatically better.  Obvious, I know, but that’s sort of what we’re about here at Sports on the Brain…).

The blue chip idea is stronger in basketball than any other sport.  We all know that basically if you don’t have one of the seven or eight best players in the league (LeBron, Wade, Kobe, Howard, Dirk, Durant, probably Rose, possibly Carmelo, Paul before his knee went), then all the bright moves in the world, will still leave you the Houston Rockets.  Yet, while not as dramatic, the same still applies to baseball.

Yes, the Giants won last year’s title with Tim Lincecum as their only clear blue chip talent, but Matt Cain is borderline and Buster Posey is in the process of establishing himself in the club. Plus, if you look back at the last decade’s worth of winners, you will see a preponderance of big names:

WS Champ Season Blue Chip Hitters Blue Chip Pitchers
New York Yankees 2009 A. Rodriguez, M. Teixeira, D. Jeter C. Sabathia, M. Rivera
Philadelphia Phillies 2008 C. Utley, J. Rollins, R. Howard C. Hamels
Boston Red Sox 2007 D. Pedroia, M. Ramirez, D. Ortiz J. Beckett, J. Papelbon
St. Louis Cardinals 2006 A. PUJOLS, S. Rolen C. Carpenter
Chicago White Sox 2005 P. Konerko (?) M. Buerhle
Boston Red Sox 2004 M. Ramirez, D. Ortiz C. Schilling, P. Martinez
Florida Marlins 2003 D. Lee, M. Lowell J. Beckett
Anaheim Angels 2002 D. Eckstein I’m kidding…
Arizona Diamondbacks 2001 L. Gonzalez R. Johnson, C. Schilling
New York Yankees 2000 Jeter, B. Williams R. Clemens, Rivera

The baseball playoffs are a funny endeavor, unlike the NBA, any team can get hot and win once they are in the dance.  You saw that last year with the Giants and you saw it in 2005, when the White Sox capitalized on the Sox and Yanks having beat the tar out of one another for two straight years.  But still, each of those World Series winning teams, save the Angels, had at least two blue chip players.  Most had three.  You can win without stars, but you have to be very, very good.  That Angels team didn’t have any blue chip talent, but they were strong enough top to bottom to win 99 games.  I’d hate to be a cliche, but they were scrappy.  They played defense, ran bases, pitched well across the board, had a great pen, had Mike Scioscia and Joe Maddon on the bench…

Plus, the other seven playoff teams that year were Atlanta (Chipper, Andruw Jones, G.Sheffield), St. Louis (Pujols, J. Edmonds, M. Morris), San Francisco (B. Bonds, J. Kent, and B. Bonds’ head), Arizona (see 2001), New York (Jeter, Williams, J. Giambi, M. Mussina), Minnesota (no idea?), Oakland (M. Tejada, E. Chavez, T Hudson, B. Zito, M. Mulder).  You know what I mean?  While you can argue that you can win in the playoffs by being really good and getting on a roll, to get there, you basically need those blue chip guys.

To bring it back to the Jays, how would their chances look this year if you gave them Evan Longoria, Josh Hamilton and, oh I don’t know, lets say… Roy Halladay?

Suddenly, this is their batting order:

1) Y. Escobar (r), SS
2) T. Snider (l), LF
3) E. Longoria (r), 3B
4) J. Hamilton (l), CF
5) J. Bautista (r), RF
6) A. Lind (l), 1B
7) A. Hill (r), 2B
8) J. Rivera (r), DH
9) J. Arencibia (r), C

With J. Molina, E. Encarnacion, R. Davis, and J. Nix (or J. McDonald) making up the bench. Aaron Hill’s no longer being asked to be a middle of the order presence, Encarnacion and Davis become excellent bench pieces, Mike McCoy bolsters the Las Vegas 51s and the Jays are suddenly contenders.

Similarly, the starting staff looks far more impressive:

R. Halladay
R. Romero
B. Morrow
B. Cecil
K. Drabek

As with the Suns, this just pushes guys back into roles they should be. Romero isn’t a number one starter, he’s just not. Kyle Drabek’s a stud, but he’s also a baby, lets let him grow as the fifth starter, rather than throwing him into the fire as the number 2. And while every Jays’ fan has a soft spot for that redheaded, left handed step child, Jesse Litsch, it’s hard to see him having any meaningful success this year. Having a blue chipper at the top would mean that Litsch could be an insurance policy, rather than him being counted upon as part of the rotation.

Unfortunately, just as the Suns don’t have Dirk or Manu, the Jays don’t have Longoria or Hamilton; and, despite what I tell myself every night as I fall asleep, they don’t have Doc. So, rather than competing for a title in 2011, they are fighting to be respectable, to keep things interesting through the summer, and maybe, just maybe, to fly a little higher than the Sun(s).

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